Taunton crisis team on the frontlines of mental health treatment
TAUNTON >> Less than three hours before Arthur "AJ" DaRosa embarked on a killing spree in a Myricks Street house and inside the Silver City Galleria, members of Taunton's Community Crisis Intervention Team (CCIT) were in the mall's community room wrapping up the first day of a three-day training session.
The horrific events of that May 10 evening included the stabbing deaths of a man and a woman, the wounding of two others by knives and, finally, a single gunshot by an off-duty sheriff's deputy that killed DaRosa and put an end to the inexplicable carnage.
Notwithstanding the magnitude of the incident, which attracted national attention, the more than 50 people who previously signed up for that week's CCIT "adult training" were back in class the next day.
"It was very somber," said Taunton Patrolman Steve Turner, as to the mood in the room during that Wednesday's three-hour session.
It's conceivable that if the 28-year-old DaRosa— who a day before the murders was admitted for psychiatric evaluation at Morton Hospital —had met with someone affiliated with CCIT his actions might have been averted.
Turner, a 29-year TPD veteran, is one of about 10 so-called core members of the city's all-volunteer, crisis-intervention team.
Since its official inception in 2003 the group has encouraged and fostered partnerships between the police department, the Department of Mental Health and private mental-health groups, Morton Hospital, the school department and the adult and juvenile criminal court system.
The goal, Turner said, has always been to help people help themselves by receiving appropriate mental-health treatment before they become just another prison or state hospital statistic.
The group also has an elder crisis component led by Patrolman John Munise.
Some family members of the late DaRosa have criticized Morton Hospital, which subsequently severed ties with a third-party mental-health provider that handled the hospital's emergency room evaluations, for allegedly not doing enough to help him.
Turner, however, defends Morton, which he said "has done a great job over the years."
"I never second-guess anyone. It's a sad situation," Turner, 55, added.
Mental illness, he said, is often unpredictable and potentially dangerous both to the person afflicted and to others.
"I'm sure a lot of people are going through what AJ went through," Turner said, adding that mental illness is "not a black, white, rich or poor thing."
Turner said he wants more people to know they can request a cost-free and personal "case conference," whereby trained mental-health professionals determine how best to treat and help someone struggling with a mental malady.
"People should reach out, and there's no reason to be embarrassed about it," he stressed.
Turner said CCIT has held as many as 200 case conferences during the past 13 years.
The CCIT website cites the example of a high-ranking officer from another police department who, in 2012, attended a three-day training session.
The police lieutenant, Turner said, was a well-educated, single dad and guardian of three boys, the youngest of whom was acting out and had become unmanageable.
Because of an emergency case conference arranged by Taunton's CCIT— that included the participation of the state's Department of Children and Families, as well as a program from Taunton-based nonprofit Community Counseling of Bristol County —the father was able to qualify for Mass Health, which provided his son more extensive treatment than was available from his father's work-related private insurer.
Turner said the youngest son is now 16 and doing well in school. As for his father, Turner said "he's a different person now."
He says anyone who thinks they might be facing an imminent mental health crisis, or anyone who is concerned about someone in that situation, should contact either the police department or Community Counseling of Bristol County (CCBC).
Turner credits core member and CCBC program coordinator Kathy Lalor for fulfilling an integral role.
Lalor's involvement with the intervention team, he said, dates to 2003 when she worked as a case worker at the time the former Community Partnership Inc. became known as Community Crisis Intervention Team.
Turner said it's not just potentially aggressive people who benefit from the CCIT.
He cited the example of a mentally challenged city man who was being preyed upon by other men for sexual favors and whose apartment was being used as a recreational-drug crash pad.
The man's landlord, Turner said, attended a case conference and provided police with a key to the apartment.
Police, in turn, conducted periodic checks and warned the predators to desist. They also made sure the victim received help from a case worker from a private agency.
"He's doing a lot better now," Turner said.
He cites another case of a 63-year-old military veteran living alone in an apartment complex, who for three months refused to pay rent and who stopped accepting food provided by Meals on Wheels.
The landlord, who Turner described as "very kind," told police his tenant, who collects social security disability checks, had become hostile and no longer was paying attention to personal hygiene.
It got so bad, Turner said, that bottles of urine were found strewn around the apartment.
CCIT, he said, made sure that a Veterans Administration nurse stepped in to talk to and provide the man the help he needed, which included taking walks outside.
"He was like a hermit," Turner said. "But the guy saw the light and began eating again, and he gets out now."
Turner says it's a bygone era when police simply picked up people, who might be struggling with mental illness, from the street only to dump them off at Taunton State Hospital or Morton Hospital.
Now, he said, experienced cops and rookies fresh out of the police academy have received at least some training in recognizing warning signs of behavior indicating a mental or psychological disorder.
"There's more empathy now," he said.
Turner credits TPD grant writer and community police superior Sgt. Richard Correira for his role as a CCIT trainer.
He also said his co-chair Estele Borges, who sits on the Taunton City Council and works for mental-health and psychiatric nursing company Epic Health Services, has taken an especially active role as a member of Taunton's CCIT.
Correira, 48, said the number of Taunton police officers who have agreed to undergo CCIT training recently passed the halfway mark and now stands at 56 percent.
Borges said she would like to see the department adopt a policy of mandatory participation for all 110 of its police officers.
CCIT core members include retired probation department officers, mental-health professionals and Taunton District Court First Justice Kevan Cunningham.
Turner said Taunton's crisis-intervention team, which holds monthly meetings at Taunton State Hospital, has been emulated by communities in Massachusetts as well as other parts of the country.
"Folks are coming to us from all over the state," Correira said.
He says he's been in touch with Capt. John Cabral of the Fall River Police Department, where Correira says they are in the beginning stages of establishing their own version of a crisis intervention team.
Turner said the local district court system has from the start played a central and vital role.
He said former Taunton District Court chief probation officer Bill McAndrew realized in the 1990s that a new approach was needed dealing with people whose main crime in life was suffering from mental illness.
"He recognized there were other avenues instead of just filtering them through the jail system where they really don't belong," Turner said.
In the event of "extenuating circumstances" McAndrew, he said, would ask police to attach a yellow sticky note to a report indicating "mental health issues."
By doing so, Turner said, the court clinician would step in and speak privately with the arrested party to determine if counseling with or without prescription medicine might rectify the problem.
"Criminal charges would be placed on the back burner," in some cases, Turner said.
McAndrew was a CCIT guest speaker at the Galleria mall's community room on May 12, two days after DaRosa indiscriminately attacked his victims.
Information from: Taunton Daily Gazette, http://www.tauntongazette.com
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